VPNs are virtual private networks which protect your online privacy and secure the information you send and receive. Many people wonder how safe and trustworthy VPNs are indeed. Read this article to understand better what VPNs are, what is important for their security and to what extent you can trust them.
It’s important that you first grasp the VPN basics in order to estimate how reliable VPNs are. First, VPNs create a private network between you (your pc or mobile smart phone) and a remote VPN server (gateway). The networks are virtual because your physical location does not matter and could be geographically far away from the gateway. In order VPNs to work they rely upon the usual Internet connectivity and create a virtual network over it, hence the name – virtual private network. Once inside this virtual network your location and network information is hidden for the outside world when you access external resources.
Second, data encryption is used to ensure the security of the transmitted information between you and the gateway, thus preventing eavesdropping and spying over your traffic. This is especially important when you are connected to public and unsafe networks such as WiFis or monitored corporate networks.
Now that you know how VPNs work you should understand its key and most vulnerable components . The first and possibly the most important one is encryption.
As a general rule, no encryption (even combination of encryption algorithms) is perfectly safe. However, the time it takes for someone to decrypt your data is of essence. Strong encryption requires years to be decrypted even with powerful computers. This time lag will usually makes the information of little use.
Imagine a hacker getting finally your credit card information after 5 years when the credit card has already expired anyway. This, in addition to the huge processing resources it will require, makes usually decrypting quite unattractive to the average hacker.
However, it’s a different story when it comes to state interests and governments with serious resources come to play. There are supercomputers which decrypt information much faster and instead of years it may take weeks or even less for any information to be decrypted. Furthermore, conspiracy theories tell that some popular encryption algorithms have backdoors which may allow a certain government access to your data in no time at all.
VPNs hide most of the traces which you usually leave when you are connected to Internet. When you browse web sites or chat your IP address is easily seen but with VPNs only the IP address of the gateway VPN is visible. This VPN gateway IP does not disclose any personal info about you.
Here comes the question is it possible for someone to trace you through the VPN. Most commercial VPN service providers claim that they keep no logs to indicate their clients activity. This means that it shouldn’t be possible for just anyone, including interested government representatives, to force your VPN provider to divulge information about you because this information is simply not there.
In fact the privacy protection is taken very seriously by all VPN service providers because this is the essence of their service and even a single failure may ruin their business. However, every company first and foremost is obliged to comply with the law. Thus, you should consider that your privacy is protected to the extent allowed by law and in cases of serious crimes and terrorism any company is obliged to cooperate with the law enforcement representatives.
On a side note, if you decide to manage your own VPN server instead of using a commercial provider, it is usually much easier for interested parties to trace who runs the VPN service and thus track you. That’s why it’s recommended to use a commercial VPN service even if you have the technical knowledge to create and configure one yourself.
VPNs are important but you should be aware that they are only one part in the security / privacy protection chain. Security begins from the device you use (personal computer, smart phone) and ends with the sites, chats, etc. you use. As with every chain, it is as strong (secure) as its weakest link is.
This means that your security and privacy can be compromised even if you use the most secure VPN but you neglect to install a reliable antivirus locally for example. No VPN can protect you from local keyloggers or other spyware.
Furthermore, don’t forget the last link of the chain, i.e. where your information arrives. Imagine that you submit your credit card information to a compromised web site. VPNs cannot help you in this case, unfortunately.
Even though there are some efforts to identify dangerous / malicious online resources you can never feel entirely safe. Just recall the numerous news stories about some of the biggest IT companies admitting theft of personal clients information after hacker attacks.
VPNs are essential part of every Internet security solution and they cannot be replaced by other solutions such as antivirus programs. Thus, you can rely on VPNs as long as you follow all best security practices and chose a reliable VPN service provider.
Also, it’s important to understand that VPNs are designed with the best intentions in mind. Our online life is full of all kinds of online threats and VPNs can save a lot of troubles for the average user.
Finally, as a warning you should be aware that VPNs is not a solution which protects criminals and in fact there’s no such a solution at all. As you might have heard, even the most notorious and advanced online criminals get traced and caught in the end.